It’s Legs Eleven at the Souk

In a souk under the blazing Dubai sun a cacophony of raised voices and shouted demands cuts through the early morning silence as officials of Full member nations continue their unedifying daily haggling with the stall holders of the BCCI, ECB and CA around the future of the ICC and the structure of world cricket. It is a scene that has been seen often over the past week since formal meetings began to discuss the draft FC&A position paper, and each day has brought us fresh news of the latest peripheral accommodation sold in exchange for their vote.

In today’s latest update from the horse-trading at the souk we receive news of a fresh proposal to facilitate the possibility of top Associate members attaining Test status. You might recall that just a few short days ago that a promotion and relegation system was suggested under which there would be two tiers of Test cricket, one involving the top 8 Full members and a lower level that accommodated Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the top 6 Associate nations who would play in an Intercontinental Cup.

The winner of this competition would earn the right to challenge the lowest ranked nation from the top-tier for promotion to the top flight over a 4 match series with the victor being elevated, or remaining, in the top-tier – that is unless one of the bottom ranked teams were the rich merchants of the BCCI, ECB or CA who were unilaterally exempted from such market forces in order to protect their business interests and without whom it was argued the souk would fall into financial ruin.

As an encouragement for the development of cricket in leading Associate nations the proposal had some merit as well as providing continued incentive for those in the top flight to maintain and enhance standards. Naturally self-interest and the now familiar horse-trading at the souk saw the proposal quickly jettisoned given that the stall holders required the support of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to advance their broader financial agenda.

The latest negotiations have resulted in a new proposal that would provide the leading Associate nation with the opportunity to challenge the lowest ranked Test nation to a series, victory in which would award them Test status for the following four year period – naturally, given their previous accommodations, the stall holders have assured Full members that their Test status will not be affected regardless of the result. “Legs eleven” cries the bingo caller at the souk!

Again, it is not a bad proposal if the aim is to provide clearer pathways for leading Associates, but it remains eerily silent, as was its earlier incarnation, on the broader implications of such a decision.

The first, and most important, issue it ignores is the very clear link between Test status and Full membership of the ICC with all of the financial and voting rights it brings. As the ICC website makes clear in its Members Overview section:

“Full Members are the governing bodies for cricket of a country recognised by the ICC, or countries associated for cricket purposes, or a geographical area, from which representative teams are qualified to play official Test matches.”

It goes on to note in their section ICC Classification of Official Cricket (with effect from January 2014) that:

“Test matches are those which:

  1. a.      are played in accordance with the ICC Standard Test Match Playing Conditions and other ICC regulations pertaining to Test matches; and
  2. b.      are between:

                                            I.            teams selected by Full Members of the ICC as representatives of the Member Countries (Full Member Teams)

                                          II.            a Full Member and a composite team selected by the ICC as representative of the best players from the rest of the world … “

And yet under this proposal from the Dubai souk there appears to be no suggestion that should the top ranked Associate would attain Full member status should they defeat the bottom ranked Test nation. This should really come as no surprise given the narrowing of financial and governance power to the BCCI, ECB and CA articulated even under the latest modification of the FC&A proposal – after all such status would create an additional, albeit much disembodied, voice and vote at the ICC table, not to mention reducing the distributions (after Contribution Cost) to each Full member by around $5.7m over the next 8 rights year cycle based on realistic ICC revenue projections of $2.5b.

This is the real elephant in the room – Test status confers Full membership rights and it does so because those that attain it meet a set of criteria (see here for details) that demonstrate their financial stability, the sustainability and strength of cricket in their nation or region, and their ability to grow the game. In return they are entitled to a greater share of ICC revenue and decision-making power as a Full member.

It is clear that historically this criteria has not always been consistently applied by the present incarnation of the ICC, Bangladesh for example had neither a FC structure at the time of their introduction or a sustained period of dominance at lower levels. Nor does it appear that members are regularly reviewed against it as Zimbabwe lurch from one disaster to another over the past decade as a corrupt government and compliant cricket administration burn piles of ICC cash and reduce player numbers and programmes to the point where have been unable to afford to participate in Test cricket and pay their players on several occasions.

But past failings of governance should not mean that such criteria are not relevant into the future. If the new proposal emanating from the souk is adopted, Associates can attain Test status without the need to meet a set of criteria that, if sensibly and objectively measured, ensures that they continue to invest in cricket infrastructure, participation and playing strength. Equally though, such participation may impede their ascension to Full membership – new nations have historically struggled to be immediately competitive and this may colour judgement over Full membership applications as the strength is no longer purely assessed against performance at lower levels.

In addition, if the FC&A document can be believed, the successful Associate would experience an additional financial impost by having to host unprofitable tours of which this position paper would have us believe there are many and without the additional ICC revenue derived from Full membership, and with no guarantees of bilateral series against the Big 3 would they really be better off?

And then of course, with potentially another Test nation added, there is the problematic question of how to create a realistic FTP with meaningful Test series length when scheduling issues and the lust for financial returns cannot see such a dream realised in the present day with less nations to accommodate.

Realistically, if it is desirable to ensure that “Test cricket remains competitive and relevant” and have each nation play each other on a home and away basis every four years with each series having a minimum of 3 Tests, it is hard to find a way in which this could work with more than 9 teams given that this would result in each playing 6 to 8 Tests each domestic summer – after all it is hard to have a fair and realistic ranking system without a workable FTP.

A greater number of teams will simply result in either more meaningless two Test series, or less frequent (or potentially no) bilateral tours to smaller Full members from the largest three nations which would further erode the already fragile financial position of many given the almost certain introduction of the Contribution Cost model over the next rights cycle.

However, as Srini, Giles and Wally board their magic carpet en route to the Burj Al Arab, weary from another day of frenzied bargaining at the souk that brings them ever closer to their goal, you can rest assured that they will waste not one minute’s contemplation on such difficult issues – after all they are not particularly germane or helpful to their broader agenda.

Tomorrow will undoubtedly be another frantic day at the souk bringing more breathless news of new deals, alliances and accommodations but it is unlikely to supply the answer to this problem.

Until the market opens tomorrow … that is stumps.

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